Cannon will pursue clemency in Makhtal case

Cannon will pursue clemency in Makhtal case

Toronto man fears Ethiopian court will hand down death sentence Monday

By David Guy, and Brendan Kennedy, The Ottawa Citizen
August 2, 2009 8:23 AM

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon says Canada will seek clemency if a Canadian businessman is sentenced to death on Monday in Ethiopia after being found guilty last week on terror-related charges.

Bashir Makhtal, 40, of Toronto, was found guilty of being a senior member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a group Ethiopia regards as a terrorist organization. Canada does not consider it a terror group. Makhtal was also found guilty of inciting rebellion and supporting Somalia’s Islamist movement, which came into conflict with Ethiopia after it invaded the neighbouring country in 2006. Makhtal, who has denied all allegations against him, is to be sentenced Monday by Ethiopia’s high court.

“The government of Canada has sought assurances from the government of Ethiopia that the death penalty will not be applied in this case,” Cannon said in a release. “We will seek clemency for Mr. Makhtal if the death penalty is imposed.”

“At least we have (Cannon’s) attention right now,” Makhtal’s cousin, Said Maktal, told the Citizen Saturday evening.

Makhtal was arrested in Kenya in December 2006 with about 100 other foreigners as part of a U.S.-led anti-terror sweep. A month later, Makhtal and the other detainees were illegally flown to Ethiopia. Over subsequent months, the detainees were released without charge and repatriated to their countries — all except Makhtal and one Kenyan, who has essentially been declared a non-citizen by Kenya.

Once in Ethiopia, Makhtal was interrogated by security officials, kept incommunicado and placed in solitary confinement for almost two years. He was not allowed to see a Canadian embassy official for 16 months. Makhtal, a former Toronto computer programmer, was operating a trading business in the Horn of Africa at the time of his arrest.

“Consular officials have visited Mr. Makhtal as recently as July 28; his case remains a priority for the government of Canada,” Cannon’s release said.

With Makhtal’s sentencing hearing only a day away, Cannon’s statement comes at a time of heightened urgency in the case.

“It’s the first statement that Minister Cannon has made on this file at all, so the fact that the foreign minister has now come out and said (the Canadian government is) very concerned about this case and they’re watching it is extremely significant,” said Lorne Waldman, Makhtal’s Canadian lawyer.

He added that Canada should be able to leverage its position as a significant aid donor to Ethiopia to put pressure on their government.

“Canada has a very generous aid program with Ethiopia that I expect would be at risk if the government of Ethiopia continues to detain illegally a Canadian citizen,” Waldman said. “And the more political pressure that’s brought to bear, the more likely it is that Mr. Makhtal will be freed.”

Ethiopia is Canada’s fifth highest aid recipient. In 2006-07, Canada delivered about $85 million in various aid programs to the country.

Waldman said all three charges Makhtal was convicted of last week carry the possibility of the death penalty, but his sentence could range from time served to life imprisonment. He could also be sentenced and expelled from the country, essentially freeing him to Canada. “Anything can happen,” Waldman said.

If Makhtal is not released after his sentencing on Monday, Waldman said all of his supporters will head to Ottawa to begin lobbying “furiously to get aid cut off to Ethiopia.”
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